Rhetoric is taught with academic pride and flourish at major universities around the world, and it’s closely associated with the prestigious, ancient name of Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers that Western Civilization has ever produced. Yet — though most people don’t know it, including many teachers of writing — Rhetoric has historically been surrounded by a tradition and reputation for deceit and corruption.
Just about everyone knows that Socrates was negative about Rhetoric, as shown by Plato in his Gorgias dialogue. In it, Socrates concludes, “Rhetoric is mere flattery and disgraceful declamation.” What most don’t know is that even proponents of Rhetoric have had a lot of negative things to say about it.
Negative Statements from PROPONENTS of Rhetoric
For instance, the ancient Roman philosopher and statesman Cicero (106-43 B.C.) taught Rhetoric to the sons of the aristocracy in Rome. And he wrote major works on Rhetoric, including De Inventione (On Invention) and De Oratore (a dialogue that discusses the principles of Rhetoric). However, Cicero thought that the most important factor in eloquence is to — exaggerate and amplify the truth!!! In fact, he thought that speaking the truth was something that a speaker should do only when it suits his purpose! And Cicero’s overarching purpose in life was—“To plant in the world an everlasting memorial of myself.” What an idealist….
Quintilian (35-100 A.D.) also taught Rhetoric to the youth of the nobility of Rome, as his chief occupation. His master work was Institutio Oratoria, a twelve-volume work on Rhetoric that borrowed from many sources, but more from Cicero than from any other. Quintilian felt that verecundia (Latin for a combination of modesty, decency, and restraint) was an absolute vice in an orator because it would make him hesitate, change his mind, or possibly even stop his talking to think things over! Heaven forbid!
Dio Chrsysostom (40-120 A.D.) was a Roman philosopher, orator, and historian who was banished from the Roman Empire at one time. He protested that he was not a Rhetorician because he did not make money, he was not interested in crooked deals, and he did not promote things in the market place — for he was not a Rhetorician!
Another Roman writer who agreed with Dio Chrsysostom was Lucian of Samosata (125-180 A.D.), who was formally trained as a rhetorician. Lucian claimed that a Rhetor is a “pushing, driving, money-chasing operator who leaves any sense of decency, propriety, moderation, and shame at home when he goes to work.” How’s that for putting down yourself, your profession, and your fellow practitioners of Rhetoric?
Probably a turning point for Rhetoric was St. Augustine’s (354-430 A.D.) acceptance of Rhetoric as a major tool in his ministry with the Catholic church. He felt that, since the devil uses the powerful devices of Rhetoric, those on God’s side should also be free to use it in self-defense (I don’t quite understand that logic — Let me get this straight, now: So if the devil uses lies and deceptions, then The Church should do so, too? What about murder — same reasoning? Doesn’t sound like very Christian logic to me… ).
St. Augustine made several statements indicating he was well aware of the deceptive nature of Rhetoric, especially in letters, where he often had to tell his readers that his enthusiasm was real and truthful, and not just rhetorical activities, rather than truthful activities.
A much more modern negative comes from Professor Wayne C. Booth (1921-2005) of the University of Chicago, in his last book published before his death, The Rhetoric of RHETORIC (2004). In it, Professor Booth points out that, beyond a doubt, in the United States and surely throughout much of the world, we are harmed daily by floods of careless or even deliberately harmful “Media Rhetrickery.”
That term, “Media Rhetrickery,” is Booth’s unique term for the widespread misuse of Rhetoric in the media, which incessantly employs Rhetoric for tricky, deceitful, and corrupt purposes. Booth spends a great deal of time in his book talking about various forms of “rhetrickery” (Rhetoric used for tricky and deceitful purposes), often apologizing for the demeaning use of Rhetoric that occurs so frequently in all walks of life. Coming from Booth, this is a heavy indictment of Rhetoric, though he doesn’t mean it to be an indictment, since he has always been a highly respected authority on, and proponent for, the positive values of Rhetoric.
Negative Statements from OPPONENTS of Rhetoric
Of course, opponents have been plenty frank about their own assessments of Rhetoric, and we’ll examine a few of their sentiments, as well.
For example, Francis Bacon (1561-1626) — English philosopher, statesman, scientist, lawyer, jurist, author — thought that Rhetoricians of his time were far too much interested in the nice arrangements of their sentences, and the decoration of their works with tropes and figures, than in the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, originality, or depth of judgment of their writing and speeches (The Advancement of Learning, 1605).
John Locke (1632-1704) — the great English thinker and philosopher — concluded that the purpose of Rhetoric was to imply wrong ideas, inflame the passions, and thereby mislead the audience’s judgment; and he claimed that the techniques of Rhetoric are “perfect cheats… wholly to be avoided… rhetoric, that powerful instrument of error and deceit” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690). What a powerfully negative statement!
Most probably the most brilliant — yet commonsensical and scholarly — modern text on Rhetoric is the 1984 book by C.H. Knoblauch and Lil Brannon, Rhetorical Traditions and the Teaching of Writing. In this largely ignored book of keen insights into Rhetoric, the authors actually attack the revival of classical Rhetoric as being a barrier to the creation of a new rhetoric, which a lot of experts have been clamoring for.
Why? Because, as they show, the ancient creators of Rhetoric believed that it merely provides a means of presenting or displaying truths which have been independently validated in a traditional but unnecessary verbal dress, that Rhetoric was largely a ceremonial exercise. In other words, Rhetoric has always provided mainly the forms of speaking and writing without substance or content — and what greater condemnation can you have than that?
Stephen Spender (1909-1995) — English poet, novelist, essayist — provided an interesting negative insight into both Rhetoric and rhetoricians when he opined, “Rhetoric is the art of deception, isn’t it? And when you become good at using rhetoric on other people, you eventually and all unknowingly use it on yourself.”
Rhetoric Corrupted the Roman Empire
The first interaction of Romans with professional Sophistic Rhetoricians was to expel them from the city. How could that happen? Well, even Roman peasants knew that Rhetors were notorious for lacking in values and virtues, being interested almost exclusively in money and fame (like Cicero). And Sophist Rhetors were widely known to criticize and tear down everything of moral repute. That’s what they had done to the Greek culture.
But the Sophistic Rhetors were great entertainers. They persevered and finally broke down the Roman public’s prudent resistance towards them through excessive flattery and through an intensive campaign of debunking established values, confounding commonsense conclusions, and turning on a vast amount of charm, wit, and synthetic sincerity. As Rhetors overcame the public’s resistance and became almost their only source of entertainment, the insatiable hunger of the people for such entertainment everywhere throughout the Roman Empire was matched only by an unbridled passion for the spoken word. There was nothing they would not pay for suaviloquentia, “pleasing sp
eech,” the top-selling product of the Second Sophistic period that caught on and stuck.
As St. Augustine pointed out, the dominating desire of people through the Roman Empire was to relax and enjoy themselves at the theaters and games (sound like anything you’re familiar with?). Lucian was more specific: He explained that the Rhetors simply got them drunk and went to work on them; the huge audiences that filled amphitheatres were paralyzed before they knew what hit them. They were putty in the hands of well-trained Rhetoricians, helpless automatons without a mind or will of their own, as some critics have pointed out.
Because of the popularity and influence of professional Rhetors, Rhetoric became the chief study in schools for the elite throughout the Roman Empire. Parents didn’t want their children to study the hard way. They insisted that eloquentia or Rhetoric was the most important thing in the world for their children to learn, and that’s what they were taught, almost exclusively.
And so schools were not interested in turning out experts. They gave their students just enough background to enable them to follow the main ideas of scholarly authors. And along with merely the main idea of every subject, every treatise, every speech studied, they were taught the Rhetorical techniques that allowed them to supply simplistic, entertaining prose that allowed them to appear knowledgeable when they weren’t, eventually reducing all scholastic output to impotence. Thus, the educated elite perpetuated a long line of Rhetors that achieved wonderful reputations and acquired great wealth in public activities from cities, dynasts, kings, and private individuals. They spoke a great deal, but were sadly lacking in intelligence, according to Dio Chrysostom, an eye-witness of the times.
From 100 A. D. onward in the Roman Empire, in every branch of science and art, there was a universal inability to create new compositions, as well as a complete incapacity to invent anything new, which is typical of an age devoid of all creative power. It’s not a new story. As Rhetoric came to be the dominant force in other flourishing cultures, such as Greece, Egypt, Babylonia, and the Arabic empire, the same mental and moral degradation occurred as Rhetoric began to dominate each of them.
Other forces had their telling influences, to be sure. But it was the universal worship and practice of Rhetoric that corrupted the Roman Empire and brought it to its knees.
You wondered where Rhetoric got its bad reputation? Now you know.